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Has Israel actually started its invasion into Gaza?

October 29, 2023

Israel has begun a ground offensive into Gaza, but it's unclear whether the maneuvers mark the official start of an invasion.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the southern sector Navy base in Ashdod and walks among soldiers
Speaking on Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the fight against Hamas Israel's 'second war of independence'Image: Kobi Gideon/Israeli Gpo/ZUMAPRESS.com/picture alliance

When the US military entered Iraq on March 20, 2003, newspapers around the world left no room to question what was going on. "WAR," a half-page headline of the San Francisco Chronicle authoritatively declared. "Major offensive underway," Germany's Rheinische Post newspaper said.

Announcements of Israel's ground offensive into Gaza since Friday have danced around big statements of this sort, the kind many have come to expect in the weeks since Hamas' October 7 terror attacks on Israel, which killed more than 1,400 people. Some 8,005 Palestinians have been killed in retaliatory strikes, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza.

Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, Germany, the European Union, the US and others.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said his military is expanding into Gaza, and that the "second stage" of the war has started. But it's still unclear: Is this the start of the planned full-scale invasion Israel announced in the days following Hamas' initial attacks? Or is that still to come?

"The second phase may look like an ongoing but low ebb, if you will," DW correspondent Rebecca Ritters reported from the ground in Israel near the country's northeastern border with Gaza on Sunday morning.

Small-scale incursions, rather than full-scale invasion

Veronika Poniscjakova, an Israel-Middle East military and security expert at the University of Portsmouth in the UK, told DW why she thinks Netanyahu has been, "quite reluctant at this moment," to call the weekend's offensive a full-scale invasion. 

"From my perspective, I think this [ground operation] is creating conditions for what may follow after," she said, adding, however, that at this point it's hard to tell what that may be.

It could be the start of a series of small incursions, she said, with a big invasion planned further down the line — or not at all, depending on how sentiment continues to develop among allies and Israelis themselves.

Poniscjakova explained that over the past three weeks since Netanyahu first announced his plans to facilitate a full-scale ground invasion — an outcome many saw as inevitable — morale has changed. 

People holding signs depicting hostages held by Hamas
Some Israelis are urging against an invasion until hostages are released by HamasImage: Jim Hollander/Matrix Images/picture alliance

For one, the US, a staunch ally of Israel, recommended in diplomatic talks following the attacks that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) launch smaller incursions and attacks on Gaza rather than its announced full-scale invasion, she said.

Feelings among the Israeli population have shifted since the October 7 attacks, she added, citing a poll taken earlier this week that suggested the population "is not as much in favor of a full-scale invasion as they were two weeks ago."

And finally, she said, comes the tricky question of how the IDF will successfully "destroy" Hamas without putting the lives of the more than 200 hostages abducted by the terror group in Israel at risk. 

Israeli families angry over fate of hostages

Each of these factors helps explain what Poniscjakova said appears to be an attempt by the IDF to fight this battle, at least initially, in smaller scale incursions rather than a dramatic full-blown invasion. She said she could see the military conducting these smaller scale incursions over several weeks or even months.

"That, to me, suggests that whatever is going to happen, it is going to take a long time," she said.

Reports from the border

At this point, it's still unclear how many Israeli troops have been sent into Gaza.

IDF military spokesman Daniel Hagari said in a Sunday news briefing that the military was "gradually expanding the ground activity and the scope of our forces in the Gaza Strip," adding, "We will do everything we can from the air, sea and land to ensure the safety of our forces and achieve the goals of the war."

His comments came after Saturday night saw widespread reports of overnight bombing.

Israeli 'ground phase will be escalated gradually': analyst

"Here you can really see and hear parts of that second stage happening before our eyes and ears," DW correspondent Ritters said. "We're seeing a pretty constant strike of artillery […] as well as airstrikes in the distance […] certainly hearing the fighter jets flying overhead from time to time."

Ritters said from her position, one could hear heavy and light machine gunfire, which would suggest that the Israeli military and Hamas fighters are relatively close to one another. Still, "in terms of the second phase, we don't know exactly in military terms what that means," she noted.

Meanwhile, it's nearly impossible to get reliable information about the situation from people in Gaza given a widespread phone and internet blackout across the strip since Friday.

So, Ritters said, it's unclear how much resistance Israeli troops have gotten from Hamas militants. "Information is trickling out, but this is also an information war," she said. "We're getting disinformation on all sides, hearing things on social media. And to really know exactly what's happening, it's too early to say."

The IDF published information Sunday noting that at least two of its soldiers had been injured.

Israel-Hamas war: Insights from military expert Mike Martin

'Only at the beginning'

In statements published after the initial news of the ground offensive broke Friday, Jonathan Panikoff, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council's Middle East Program, wrote, "there remains an open question still as to what the size and scope [of the ground offensive] will be."

"Does this mark the beginning of a full-scale ground invasion or is this preparation for a more focused, smaller-footprint counterinsurgency operation?" he asked. "In the coming days, Jerusalem's decision as to what kind of operation to undertake may be revealed."

Although much is still unclear at this point, experts seem to be aligned on at least one thing: Israel's military effort to "decimate Hamas" will probably be long — "measured in weeks or months, not days," Panikoff wrote, echoing Poniscjakova.

Netanyahu seemed to confirm that himself: "This is our second war of independence," he declared Saturday evening. "We are only at the beginning."

Israel ramps up military operations for 'second stage'

Edited by: Jon Shelton

Clare Roth
Clare Roth Editor and reporter focusing on science and migration